Tagged: matt jennings

Editors Forum 2017, Day Two

And on the second day, no rest for us. A full day of keynote presentations and elective sessions.

— From Evan Ratliff, co-founder of The Atavist and the Longform podcast (who was superb): “We’ve just experienced a radical failure of comprehension. You can’t fix that with hard news. You fix that with stories.”

— More from Ratliff: If you are ever describing your story to someone, notice the first thing you tell them about it. And never take that thing out of the written piece.

— And more: Stories, deep meaningful stories, are essential to our primary mission, to engaging an audience in the only way that matters—sustained reading. And what matters is not the digital media metrics. “You’re trying to reach people. Clicks are not people. Tweets are not people. Downloads are not people.”

— Kerry Temple, Notre Dame Magazine: “A Notre Dame education does not end when students graduate. Notre Dame Magazine extends continuing education to them.”

— Temple again: “When I say we cover the institution, we cover the institution. We are not a mouthpiece for the administration.”

— And again: In anticipation of controversy over a story you want to do, address the concerns of your bosses early in the process. “Don’t get too far out in front of your blockers.”

— And: “When readers get the magazine, I want them to feel like they’re having a visit to campus.”

— Kat Braz, Purdue Alumnus: Question the rules about what’s acceptable in magazine design; you might find that you want to break some.

— More Braz: “Crop [photos] like a mofo.”

— Sean Plottner and Wendy McMillan, Dartmouth Alumni Magazine: Stop shooting pictures of professors and students standing next to a globe, a bookshelf, or an open laptop.

— More McPlottner: Stop worrying about stealing. Stop running crappy headshots. Stop with the boring history. Stop being so serious with science stories. Stop with all the meetings. Stop running cutesy author’s bios. Stop running editor’s notes. And stop using semicolons.

— Richard Rhys, Wharton Magazine, and Renee Olsen, TCNJ Magazine: Casual conversations with senior administrators over lunch are much more fruitful than office meetings.

— Matt Jennings, Middlebury Magazine: “Recording an interview frees you up to notice things the digital device doesn’t. That doesn’t mean get lazy.”

— Jennings again: “Have a good plan [for an interview], but plan on deviating from your plan. The interview subject is driving the train.”

— Madeleine Baran, American Public Media and the podcast In the Dark: “Start [reporting] by assuming you’re wrong.” Continue reporting until you’ve run out of good arguments for being wrong. Only then are you probably right.

— Some more Baran: “It’s not just about knowing the facts of a place. It’s also important to know the feel of a place.”

Pentagram spiffs up Middlebury

The Summer 2012 edition of Middlebury debuted that magazine’s new look, courtesy of D.J. Stout and Barrett Fry of Pentagram Design. I think it looks great, page after page. Editor Matt Jennings and art director Pamela Fogg discussed their reset in an email interview.

UMag: This sort of thing is a big project. When did you start?

Matt Jennings: It was a huge project. Far more stressful and exhausting than I anticipated. To say that I’m not comfortable with messiness is a massive understatement, and a redesign is an inherently messy process, to a degree that I didn’t fully comprehend until I was ready to have a nervous breakdown. But I’ve learned that it has to be this way to get the result you want. And we couldn’t be happier. Now, to answer your question (thanks for listening, Dr. Keiger) . . . We started almost exactly a year ago, late August 2011. We held a retreat with the magazine stuff to just talk magazines—what makes a good one, what defines a successful redesign? We came up with enough ideas to probably make three or four different books. I then sketched out a very rough issue map of what I thought we should consider, and then Pam and I travelled over two mountain ranges in the days after Hurricane Irene ravaged the state’s roads to spend a day with the mag guru that is Jay Heinrichs. Time well spent. We came out of that meeting with a more refined issue map, and more importantly, a way forward. Jay was invaluable. We contracted with D.J. and his team in the Austin office of Pentagram in late November, brought them to campus for a kickoff meeting in December, saw initial concepts in February, batted those around for at least a month. And then we were off and running, really beginning in earnest in the spring.

UMag: Why do it at all? The existing Midd Mag looked pretty good to me.

MJ: We certainly were not unhappy with the magazine before we redesigned, but there were some things that we were itching to do that wouldn’t have worked as well with the old design. We’ve been wanting to switch to a paper that “felt” more like Middlebury, that featured a higher recycled content that was more in tune with the college’s sustainability mission. But the biggest thing, to me anyway, was that the college has changed so much during the past decade (the last time the magazine was refreshed, much less redesigned), and we needed a magazine that reflected those changes. We needed a structure, an architecture that would allow us to cover the college in a comprehensive and seamless way. At the same time, we want folks to feel like this is still “their” Middlebury. I think of Middlebury as a place that has roots in Vermont but is also forward thinking and global in its outlook. We wanted the magazine to reflect that, as well.

UMag: In addition to a graphics refurbishing, was this regarded as an opportunity to think about the whole book—content, structure, audience, history?

MJ: Yes, absolutely. The redesign was as much about creating the best architecture possible as the best look possible. We spent a lot of time talking about how to structure the magazine, how to approach the new book, well in advance of thinking about how it should look. One of the first things I said to our staff was there are no sacred cows here. Anything can go. Let’s think about what makes the best possible magazine for us.

UMag: Was the pg. 1 essay related to the cover story a one-timer, or will that be a recurring feature of the magazine?

MJ: A recurring feature. I loved the idea of opening the book with an essay that speaks to what you just saw on the cover. It’s unexpected. And I like being able to establish additional context and tone for the package that appears in the feature well. It gives you a substantive taste for what is to come. It can stand alone, but it also works in concert with the feature package.

UMag: OK, what’s up on the letters spread with the smidgen of Russian on pg. 13? And the other cameo appearances by foreign tongues? This is America, ya know.

Pam Fogg: Last I knew the United States is not an island. Language learning is essential to understanding other cultures and is part of a well-rounded person’s education. Middlebury teaches 10 languages and has study abroad programs in 38 sites in 16 countries . . . makes sense to engage directly to the folks who participate in these programs, eh? (That’s my Canadian . . .)

MJ: I was intrigued with including marginalia in the new book, and it was D.J. who came up with what he called the “secret codes.” Everything that is written is germane to Middlebury. I’ll leave it at that. And it will have to be left at that if you don’t speak the languages included because we forgot to include a box with the translations in the back of the book! That was our intention, to reveal the translations there, but in the chaos of closing this issue, we forgot! Next time.

UMag: Talk to me about the paper.

PF: We adopted an environmental paper policy at Middlebury about four or five years ago and this was the last, and biggest, project to fall into line with that policy. The text sheet is Rolland Enviro 100, which is 100 percent recycled and the cover is Rolland Opaque, which is 50 percent recycled, and both are FSC and Process Chlorine Free.

MJ: I should add, I have yet to hear from anyone—good, bad, or indifferent—who has not remarked on how much they like the paper. My favorite might be “the paper is softer than a baby panther’s fur.”

PF: You didn’t ask about the size but I’m going to tell you about that anyway. We have always loved Garden & Gun and at our retreat that was a clear frontrunner for format. So when D.J. brought that up as a size he thought was appropriate for us, we were all in agreement. It’s the same height (10 7/8 inches) but 1/2 inch wider at 9 inches. Makes for yummy double page photo spreads.

UMag: Old front-of-the-book features out, new front-of-the-book features in. Your thinking?

MJ: I always loved our front-of-the-book, but it wasn’t allowing us to cover the college as broadly as I wanted. It didn’t allow us to seamless integrate Middlebury and Monterey (our graduate school in California) the way we could with our new “Dialogue” department, for instance. And as creative as we could be with the old front of the book, it could feel a la carte, sometimes. I saw this as upgraded our toolbox, adding some new tools while refurbishing some older ones.

UMag: “The Observer” is a clever idea. Whose idea was it? (Please don’t tell me it was Jennings’.)

MJ: Ah, I take great pleasure in letting you know that it was my idea. Several years ago I read Robert Boynton’s collection of conversations with narrative journalists titled The New New Journalism, and in his introduction he wrote about the progenitors of literary journalism—not Wolfe and Talese and Didion, but Charles Dickens and Daniel Defoe and Stephen Crane, who all wrote marvelous nonfiction sketches before they each turned to fiction and novels. In particular, I was struck by the description of Crane’s work, who, Boynton wrote, perfected the “closely observed sketch of city life . . . Crane writes not as a social commentator or a polemical, muckraking journalist but rather as a detailed observer.” As soon as I read that, I knew this could be a great narrative department, exchanging “city life” for Middlebury life. The ultimate in showing and not telling. So I just held on to this idea until it we decided to redesign.

PF: How pretentious.

MJ: [ignoring Pam] As far as the anonymity of “The Observer,” I like the air of mystery, the intrigue. Who is the person? The idea is not original by any means—one of my favorite things about the Dartmouth magazine when Jay Heinrichs edited it was a column he ran under the pen of Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth. This particular “Observer” is under contract for one year. I already have some ideas for the Observer 2.0, though I hope folks will be clamoring for the assignment, as well.

PF: Pam, could you describe the experience of having another design team work up your new design template?

PF: I think it’s a good idea to solicit the ideas of the people on your staff and then work with an outside agency to take those even further. The in-house staff knows the institution and what will fly better than anyone. But an outside agency can push you a little further. Then we have to reign in the agency or push them in different way, and they do it back to us and over and over. Its all a good, necessary and, sometimes, messy process. (Can you tell we thought this was a messy process?) Getting as much brainpower as possible in the room makes for a better piece. A lot of the structure of this magazine came out of our team brainstorm session, but D.J. and his crew came up with some of the department names and a few of the other goodies like the “secret codes.” Plus who has time to redesign a magazine while doing the myriad other things one has to do?! For the love of Pete you need help and you need separation. Having said that, I would love to clear the decks and do this in-house if it were even possible. What’s wrong with me?!

Eight questions for Matt Jennings

Matt Jennings, editor at Middlebury Magazine, is a fixture of the CASE Editors Forum. Usually at the hotel bar. In some city a couple of years ago—Boston? Nashville? Boston, I think—he stole my dessert fork. As payback he had to submit to the UMagazinology ques-tionnaire.

How long have you been in your job?

I’ve been editing Middlebury Magazine for 10 years.

What has proven to be the most significant thing you had to learn to do that job?

You know, there have been so many things I’ve had to learn and am still learning that it’s hard to pinpoint the most significant. I think that might be my answer, learning that the job of an editor is one of constant learning. Not just learning about fascinating subjects and people and issues, that’s obvious, but learning that there is no one best way to do something, to do anything. We should always, always be thinking about fresh approaches to everything we do. The minute we become complacent, the minute we think, “oh, I know how to do that” or “this is how we do this,” then our magazines are in danger of becoming static. Boring. Easy to ignore.

What has been your best experience at the magazine?

Working with young, extremely talented writers who also have a hunger to learn and be edited. I have a reliable stable of freelance writers, I have on occasion enlisted “big-name” writers to contribute to the magazine, and we have a talented editorial staff, and it’s a pleasure to edit all of them—but the biggest thrill has been working with these rising stars, this cohort of narrative journalists just a few years out of college. I almost think of them as a pack. They all graduated within a year or two of each other, all within the past five years; most, if not all, apprenticed here under Bill McKibben, and Chris Shaw and Sue Halpern; they come to me with these great ideas and the youthful freedom and energy to go anywhere and report for as long as it takes; and they can really write, but not just that, revise, take direction, fight and argue and do whatever it takes to really nail a story. Just this year, three of them won CASE Circle of Excellence medals for writing. Zaheena Rasheed won a silver, and Kevin Redmon and Sierra Crane Murdoch won golds. And that was Sierra’s second Circle of Excellence medal in as many years.

What has proven to be your biggest frustration?

Oh, I don’t know. There might be some universal frustrations that are best shared over a cocktail at Fandangles than on a public blog. One evolving frustration has been creating a digital complement to our printed periodical. We’ve made strides in this area—I think we are producing dynamic, rich content for our digital magazine independent of or complementary to what is in our quarterly periodical, but we need a better platform to deliver this work. We made a giant leap a few years ago into a WordPress platform and that was such an improvement, but already it’s outdated. The digital realm moves so fast. I want us to be as innovative online and in tablet form as we are in print, like the collegiate version of what The Atlantic has been able to master with the print magazine, theatlantic.com, and The Atlantic Wire. Obviously, what we should be doing is on a much different scale, but the media philosophy should be the same.

What part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?

My obsessive-compulsive tendencies leave me incapable of being truly satisfied with anything. I am forever second-guessing decisions, redoing in my mind stories or story choices or cover directions. I loved Jeff Hagan’s description of not feeling relief when a magazine is on the way to the post office, but rather a feeling of “now comes hell.” I don’t think I have it that bad, though I recognize what he’s saying. Often I am pleased with what we have done, but being satisfied is different. Even if I am looking at a feature, say, that I really like, I’m still thinking, “but what if we had asked this question . . .”

What story are you proudest to have published?

My favorite story was a searing, heart-wrenching piece written by a Middlebury alumna, whose 2-year-old son was undergoing treatment for an extremely rare type of leukemia. We learned of the story through a class note, and Anne proved to be a really good writer and told a story that only she could. What I liked about it institutionally was that it showed that we care just as much about our alumni who are really struggling with a life-altering event as we do those who have achieved a large measure of success. We want to share their story just as much as we want to share the story of a geologist who helped discover the largest sub glacial lake on the planet (which is also very cool and in our next issue).

If you could commission a story from any writer in the world, who would it be?

It’d have to be John McPhee. I would love to give him the keys to Middlebury, so to speak, and turn him loose.

If you weren’t an editor, what would your dream job be?

I so enjoy doing what I do, but if I had to do something different . . . I’d love to own an independent bookstore in a vibrant literary town.

SPD cover of the day: Middlebury redux

For the second time, Pam Fogg and Matt Jennings at Middlebury have had a cover selected by the Society of Publication Designers as Cover of the Day. Jennings assures me that no family members are part of SPD’s panel of judges, but I’m not sure I believe it. Fogg is above reproach, but Jennings? If you send him a congratulatory email, be sure to ask him about the Super Bowl.

Cover of the Day

The Society of Publication Designers has awarded its “SPD Cover of the Day” designation to Middlebury Magazine. An unnamed “stellar panel of experts” made the selection, and we won’t argue. It’s one pretty cover. Congratulations to art director Pamela Fogg and editor Matt Jennings. (Not that we’ve ever cared much for Jennings . . . .)